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A voting bill that has received widespread criticism for creating barriers to the polls passed out of the Texas House of Representatives Friday, moving the legislation closer to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.
Senate Bill 7 was approved by lawmakers on a 78-64 vote Friday afternoon after getting initial approval in the House in the early hours of the morning. The votes of Tarrant County’s lawmakers fell along party lines, with Republicans voting for the bill and Democrats against.
Supporters of the bill say it is meant to bolster election integrity and reduce the likelihood of fraud, but opponents argue it is a solution in search of a problem. Election experts have said there is no evidence of widespread fraud in the November 2020 election and that the election was the most secure in U.S. History.
The version headed back to the Senate varies significantly from the bill that passed out of the upper chamber in April, setting up the potential for lawmakers to work out the differences in a conference committee made up of members from both chambers.
“I feel that this legislative body is unnecessarily passing legislation that will not provide any further access to the ballot,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth. “It will not ensure security and integrity at the ballot. But I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because Texans are resilient, and we may be broken today, but we’re not defeated.”
Debate on the bill started Thursday evening. Democrats opposed the bill as it was laid out for consideration, saying it would suppress votes and encourage intimidation that would especially affect voters of color, likening the legislation to Jim Crow laws.
More than a dozen amendments were adopted to make it more agreeable to House Democrats before votes were cast. The amendments came after a point of order bringing attention to a potential rule violation was raised. After about two hours of review, it was withdrawn and debate on the bill postponed as negotiation on amendments commenced.
Representatives had been expected to take up more than 100 amendments, but when the bill was brought back, lawmakers flew through 19 that were acceptable to the bill’s author with minimal explanation.
“Mr. Speaker, it’s now 3 a.m. in the morning, I close,” bill author Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, said before lawmakers voted.
Cain maintained the bill is designed to “protect all voters.” State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, asked Cain how many instances of voter fraud there were in the 2020 election, to which Cain replied, “I don’t know, but it’s really hard to find what you don’t look for.”
“The whole point is it protects every single voter, because I believe that’s the goal of everyone, and any amount of fraud is too much fraud,” Cain said.
Friday afternoon, closing on the bill, he said many of the changes made on the floor were in response to information learned in committee and that the legislation doesn’t punish people for honest mistakes. Cain also stressed that the bill would allow the state’s election laws to be applied uniformly across Texas.
“This bill belongs to Texans,” Cain said. “It’s written for all Texans.”
The bill prohibits an election worker from providing an application to vote by mail to a person who didn’t request one. It also limits when an election judge can remove a poll watcher from a voting location, though an amendment clarifies that a presiding judge at a polling place can call law enforcement to request a poll watcher be removed if they disturb the peace.
Other notable changes include reducing the penalty for several offenses outlined in the bill, including “vote harvesting,” and the removal of language that would have required a person assisting a voter to disclose the manner by which they helped the voter.
Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman who was convicted of voter fraud, inspired an amendment by Rep. John Bucy, D-Austin. It clarifies that a person found guilty of a felony must be instructed on how that conviction will affect their right to vote.
“Before and after passage, it will make sure that only people who know they are ineligible to vote can be prosecuted for illegal voting, and that people who make innocent mistakes in the voting process cannot be thrown in jail for mere confusion or a slip up,” Bucy said.
State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R- Fort Worth, authored an amendment calling on the secretary of state to develop a website where people could track the location and status of their application to vote by mail.
State Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat, raised concerns about the phrase “purity of the ballot box” in the bill’s purpose statement. He said the phrase, which appears in the Texas Constitution, was drafted to disenfranchise black voters following the Civil War. An amendment removed the term from the bill’s text.
Those changes on the floor were on top of alterations in House committee, when chairperson Cain moved to replace the text of the Senate Bill 7 in its entirety with the text of House Bill 6.
While the two bills had similarities, they varied in several ways. Among the differences, the Senate version would have allowed partisan poll watchers to record video at election sites and limited poll operation hours from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Those provisions are not in the version that passed Friday. Also absent from the bill is a prohibition on drive-thru voting.
There’s still a chance for measures from the Senate’s version of the bill to be added to the House’s, as the bill heads back to the upper chamber. The Senate can accept the House version as amended, or lawmakers can meet in conference committee to come up with a version that’s agreeable to both chambers before sending the bill to Gov. Greg Abbott.
Abbott made election integrity one of his emergency items for lawmakers to address and expressed support for the bill on Twitter Friday.
“This bill will help ensure that we have trust & confidence in the outcome of our elections,” the tweet reads. “One step closer to my desk & making it TX law.”
Turner, speaking early in the night Thursday before amendments were passed, predicted that the bill’s key provisions will be overturned by courts if made law.
“You want to know what discriminatory intent looks like in real time? Pay attention to how our state and legislative leaders are handling this legislation on this floor today,” Turner said.